We all know that feeling. You start the day with every intention of making it to the gym, only to spend the next 12 hours making every excuse possible not to go. For some of us, the reason we can’t make it past the “pack gym bag” stage lies in our lack of motivation, but for others, the reason for not making it to the gym centers on fear.
A fear of the gym, or “gymtimidation,” as it has been coined, is a feeling of anxiety and stress experienced when a person thinks about, or steps foot into, a gym. With January now in full swing and swaths of people frantically googling “gym memberships near me” while adding the best squat-proof leggings to their online shopping baskets in a bid to get healthy, gymtimidation sees an increase, too.
As it stands, nearly 22 percent of people aged 6 and up in the US are members of a health club or studio, amounting to close to 66.5 million individuals, according to the 2022 IHRSA Global Report. And data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association shows that 12 percent of these sign-ups happen in — you guessed it — January.
So how do you know if your anxiety could be gymtimidation? And what can you do to stop your fear of the gym impacting your health goals this January?
What Is Gymtimidation?
It might sound like the new social media buzzword, but gymtimidation is, for those who experience it, a very real fear. According to psychologist and life coach Jeff Spires, it can be a complicated anxiety to understand. “Gymtimdation is not about dreading the gym because you can’t be bothered to or can’t find the motivation to exercise. Instead, gymtimidation is a reaction to a very real fear of the social environment the gym floor presents and the worry about the judgments you might face there,” Spires tells POPSUGAR.
“Exercises in the gym require us to do things specifically designed to put us outside of our comfort zone in front of total strangers, and it is this combination that causes us to experience anxiety. We feel vulnerable because we know we are trying to do things that are difficult, and the fact that we have to do these things in close proximity to others causes comparison and competition,” he continues. “Our brains begin a fear cycle of worry: ‘Am I doing it right?’ ‘Am I sweating more than them?’ ‘Do they think I’m weak?’ ‘Have I set the machine up properly?’ It can also be triggered by worries of what to wear, how to exercise, what other people think of you, and of the gym environment itself.”
Sound familiar? Gymtimidation can last for months or even years, so it’s worth recognizing some of the behaviors and finding ways to channel these feelings productively. Personal trainer and Nuffield Health clinical fitness lead Olivia Tyler says: “For some, gymtimidation can be so severe that it can stop people from joining a gym or taking part in exercise at all. For those that get as far as joining, it can cause them to leave prematurely and associate places of health and well-being with more negative feelings.”
As with many feelings of anxiety, this particular form often stems from within and how we feel about ourselves. “The feeling of gymtimidation is often a result of how we perceive others to see us and how we see ourselves, rather than actually coming from other people,” Tyler explains. “The gym is a place of positive physical and mental change and well-being, but people sometimes feel like they need to look like the finished product immediately (or live up to an Instagram version of this) at all times. If they don’t live up to these high standards, they experience the feeling of being judged, and that’s when the anxiety creeps in.”
What Causes Gymtimidation?
If you’re someone who’s usually socially confident outside of the gym, why is it that the gym floor triggers a sudden rush of panic? “Unlike many other public spaces, the gym does not encourage social interaction,” Spires says. “Exercise, especially in a gym, is usually a solo activity, but in a public space, this alone can often be enough to bring nerves to many people. We don’t know how to act, whether to make eye contact or converse with others, and we can feel like we should know exactly what we are doing in an environment that we don’t fully understand.
Particularly in January, there is the added emphasis of the gym being a means to improve ourselves in some way, whether that be to get healthier, fitter, or stronger, giving an additional layer of pressure. “This means that we can often feel anxious when we start out, as we feel we need to change before we can feel confident in the gym setting,” Spires says.
Tyler, who sees clients with gym anxiety on a regular basis, adds: “People who are more anxious in general and are more focused on what others think of them can be more susceptible to gymtimidation, but it can be experienced by anyone who has little experience with exercise. I also think it’s important to say that even those who are experienced with exercise can experience episodes of gymtimdation at times if there is someone stronger, faster, or fitter training near them or if they are going through a period of low self-esteem outside of the gym.”
How to Overcome Gymtimidation
Separate the gym and exercise
Stop thinking stepping foot in the gym is the only option. “Lots of us feel that we have to join a gym to get fit, when the reality is very different. Start by building up your confidence with exercise in a safe and comfortable environment,” Spires says. Start by searching for YouTube workouts that you can do in your living room. (POPSUGAR’s Class Fitsugar series is a great place to begin!) “You don’t need to face other people, you don’t need to worry about how to use equipment, and you don’t even have to get changed out of your PJs if you don’t want to!” Spires says. “As a result, your brain won’t fire off the same warning signals that result in fear and anxiety.”
If you’ve been struggling with gymtimidation, remember it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your goals. Home workouts mean you can build up confidence and figure out what works for you from the comfort of your home.
Focus on your goals
“The first thing to do is to focus on yourself, what you need, and what you would like to achieve,” Tyler tells POPSUGAR. “This gives you a goal that you have set and you want to work towards, giving you a good understanding of why you want to go to the gym. For example, if you’re starting exercise because you want to improve a health condition or want to build mental health resilience, then remembering this can allow you to refocus your attention on the positive outcomes rather than the negatives.”
Claim your space
While you might initially think everyone has a place in the gym and you don’t belong, remember that you deserve a space, too. “You have every right to get your exercises done, the same as everyone else there,” Tyler advises. “Find a space, put down a mat, get yourself the equipment you want to use, and then stay in that space that you have carved out as yours as you complete your workout. This will help you build confidence slowly in a small area, rather than feeling intimidated by the entire gym floor.”
Do not be afraid to ask questions from the fitness staff at the gym. They’re there to help. And remember: everyone in the gym had to start somewhere. “With a few simple pointers, you can confidently learn how to use those pieces of equipment that intimidated you so you know you can do it yourself next time,” Tyler says.
You might think classes are counterintuitive, fueling the compare-and-despair narrative, but a lot of them remove some of the things that cause fear. “In classes, your equipment is all laid out for you, your instructor will show you how to do the moves, and although there will be others with you, you are all in the same boat, doing the same thing,” Spires explains.
Celebrate the small wins
Every time you exercise or head to the gym, you have achieved something. Celebrate completing a circuit, running for an extra minute, or even putting on your gym clothes and getting out of the house. “Comparison feeds anxiety in the gym. Comparing your fitness, your strength, your outfit, or even your post-workout selfies with others will fuel your worries, as it encourages you to think others are judging you,” Tyler says. Instead, focus on your achievements and the exercises you enjoy rather than those you think you should be doing.
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